REGNAULT, Jean-Baptiste
(b. 1754, Paris, d. 1829, Paris)

The Origin of Painting: Dibutades Tracing the Portrait of a Shepherd

Oil on canvas, 120 x 140 cm
Musée National du Château, Versailles

In the last decades of the eighteenth century there was a widespread vogue for paintings that evoked the origins of art. Instead of the usual allegories or emblematic paintings of tools of the trade, two anecdotal subjects were often handled: "Dibutades Tracing the Portrait of a Shepherd" (the supposed origin of painting) and "Pygmalion and Galatea" (sculpture). In both cases, love was at the heart of the work. The former subject, extraordinarily popular during the last third of the century, concerned the legend of a young woman from Corinth, who outlined the shadow cast on a wall by her beloved. It was held to be a valid illustration of the origins of art, combined with the amorous motivation required by that sentimental age. The anecdote was cited in art manuals as early as 1760, and was familiar to every studio.

Regnault used to theme for an overdoor in the queen's Grand Cabinet at Versailles, at the same time painting a Pygmalion for her bedchamber. There are numerous examples of this subject up to about 1820, culminating with Fuseli and Girodet.